Thousands of miles away, in Southeast Asia, an oil industry is booming,
gobbling up giant tracts of rainforest in the process.
A St. Louis genomics company believes it has come up with a solution that could prevent further damage to the region's sensitive -- and ecologically valuable -- environment.
In the past three decades, global palm oil production has quintupled, turning the humble tropical tree into a $44 billion industry.
The oil -- virtually absent from products decades ago -- can be found in everything now, from toothpaste to sauces, having gained traction among manufacturers because it's cheap and shelf-stable. It is now the world's most widely produced food oil, at about 60 million tons a year.
But the boom, like most, has come at a cost. As demand has shot up, so has the consumption of vast swaths of Southeast Asian tropical rainforest, which have been plowed under to make space for palm oil plantations. The deforestation has pushed certain species of orangutan, elephant and tiger to the brink of extinction, while slash-and-burn practices have led to smog and huge releases of climate-warming carbon.
Enter Orion Genomics.
The company and its partner, the government-funded Malaysian Palm Oil Board, just announced they have sequenced the massive palm oil genome, and have identified the gene mutations that lead to higher-yielding palm oil trees. That identification could mean fewer palm trees are needed on fewer acres, placing less pressure on rainforests while still satisfying surging global demand.
"We believe the technology is the answer," said Nathan Lakey, president and CEO of the company, which is based in St. Louis' Central West End. "If we can make palm trees more and more productive, that will enable us to provide enough food and biofuels on the existing planted area."
Malaysia is the world's second-largest producer of palm oil. It and neighboring Indonesia grow roughly 90 percent of the world's palm oil.
The oil is often referred to as the "backbone" of the Malaysian economy, so the quasi-governmental palm oil board, which regulates the industry, also funds research to make it more efficient and profitable.
About a decade ago, the board became interested in biotechnology and sequencing, so it approached James Watson, the Nobel laureate who co-discovered the structure of DNA, and asked for his counsel. He referred them to Orion.
"We definitely could not afford a whole genome sequencing, so we realized the company offered a unique technology, where you didn't have to sequence the entire genome," said Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi, director of the board's Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Centre. "They had a proprietary technology where the nonfunctional part of the genome is filtered out, and we could zoom in on the expressed gene."
The palm oil tree, like a coconut tree, has a fleshy interior, a hard shell, and then a softer, fleshy exterior. It, uniquely, yields three types of fruit: one with a thick shell, one with no shell, and one with a thin shell -- the latter, a hybrid of the first two, being the most productive and the one grown commercially. This hybrid produces 30 percent more oil.
While growers purchase the hybrid seeds that produce the thin-shelled variety, they end up with a dud -- one of the two undesirable types -- about 10 percent
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